Grief is the normal, universal response to one’s own terminal illness or debilitating injury, or to the loss of a treasured being, human or nonhuman. Grief can be experienced to varying degrees at the end of a friendship, a marriage, a job or career. Bereavement is the general term that includes mourning (the public display of loss) and grieving (the more private experience).
When someone we love is diagnosed with a terminal illness or dies, we are shaken to the core. The profound sadness that pet lovers experience when our pets become gravely ill or die, however, is not something that is universally shared. Friends, family, or coworkers may not understand the depth of your sadness just when their support is most needed. We hope that this discussion brings you some comfort during this time of sorrow and want to reassure you that it is normal to grieve for our pets. Your life will be forever enriched by the time you spent together, however short that time may have been. Please accept our deepest condolences for your loss.
Coping With Pet Loss
For pet lovers, the death of a cherished companion can be as painful as the death of a relative or friend. In fact, the death of a pet can affect some of us even more than the death of a relative or friend. We have unique relationships with every pet who enters our lives. Sometimes, the loss of one animal friend in particular might impact us more than the loss of another, yet they each shape us in a special way.
Our pets come to symbolize many things. They can represent a child, perhaps a child who was lost, or one yet to be conceived, or the innocent child in us all. They may reflect the ideal mate or parent, ever faithful, patient, and welcoming, loving us unconditionally. Pets become our playmates and siblings. They reflect our inner selves, and become the embodiment of many of the qualities, good or bad, that we recognize or lack in ourselves.
The process of grieving for your pet is the same as grieving the death of a human being. The difference lies not in the grief that you experience in private, but in the acceptance of your mourning by your support system and by society because of their perception of your pet’s value.
Each member of your family will experience a distinctive relationship with the same pet; you might even relate to the same pet in a different way through the day. Because your pet means different things to other people in your family or circle of friends, they will each react differently to his or her passing and may not share the same depth of emotion that you do when you grieve for your pet’s loss.
When a pet becomes terminally ill or dies, it is natural to hope that your pain will be acknowledged, even if it is not shared, by your support group of family, friends, and coworkers. Although you may value your pet as much or more than many of your relationships with people, the significance of your loss may not be fully appreciated by those you turn to for support. Your grief may be intensified if you are disappointed by the lack of empathy from someone you turn to for support.
You do not need approval to justify the pain you feel because of the loss of your pet. You do not need to justify your feelings to anyone. On the other hand, understand that not everyone can appreciate the joy you shared with your pet, or how this loss has shattered your world. Perhaps they are distracted with their own turmoil, and simply are not emotionally available to you right now.
And yet, people will show you compassion and their support may emerge from the least expected places. Mention your pet’s illness or loss to a neighbor or colleagues at work; you might make a new friend. Validate your pain with people who understand, such as your veterinarian, veterinary technician, groomer, or another pet owner. If someone is unsupportive, simply stay away for now; you are vulnerable and need time to heal.
The death of a pet can trigger painful memories to resurface. Unresolved issues from the past can complicate your stress. Still, know that you are not alone. Reach out to clergy or professional counselors in your area. Although death is an end, it can also be a beginning and an opportunity to learn and grow. The time you had with your pet is a glorious and meaningful gift that will outlive their passing.
Stages of Grief
There are five stages of normal grief. Everyone will experience them differently. The five stages do not necessarily follow in a neat sequence, nor are they felt with the same intensity or duration. It is normal to bounce between stages before achieving a sense of peace; acceptance is the final stage of grief but it takes time to get there. The death of a pet often forces us to contemplate our own mortality, even questioning our belief systems. The common denominator between us all, and what helps us to survive our grief, is hope. As long as there is life, there is hope. As long as there is hope, there is life. Even if there is no hope to cure your pet’s illness or to extend a life lived well, there is the hope that you will recover from this loss and find joy again.
Denial and Isolation: It is completely normal, and even necessary to our survival, to first deny reality when it is too painful. In the face of overwhelming emotions, denial is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of a situation. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This temporary response floats us through the first wave of pain. We can’t remember exactly what the veterinarian was saying as she delivered the sad news; we can’t remember what we said in response. We can’t comprehend that this is something that can’t be fixed. We want to run away and hide, or hope that this is just a bad dream that will just go away.
You might need to ask your veterinarian for extra time or just one more explanation of your pet’s condition and treatment options. Arrange for a special appointment or telephone time with you. You are entitled to clear answers about your pet’s diagnosis and treatment. Discuss the potential cost of treatment options. Inquire about a referral to a veterinary specialist or a second opinion. Understand the options available to you. Take your time; write things down.
Anger: When the masking effects of denial and isolation fade, the pain of reality returns whether you are ready or not. Perhaps the anger is a coping mechanism that deflects unbearable emotion away from your vulnerable core; the pain is turned outward and expressed as anger instead. Your anger might be aimed at inanimate objects, or redirected onto complete strangers, family or friends. You might even feel angry at your pet, who is the source of your pain, although your rational mind reminds you it is not your pet’s fault. Still, it is normal to resent your pet for causing you such pain or for leaving you. You might even feel guilty for being angry, and this could alienate you further.
Some pet owners vent their anger on the veterinarian who diagnosed the pet’s illness, or couldn’t produce a miracle cure, or performed the pet’s euthanasia. Veterinary professionals deal with death and dying every day, but that does not make them immune to the suffering of their patients or to their grieving guardians. Veterinarians are human, too, and some are more sensitive or psychologically oriented than others. Honest and open communication with your veterinarian now is a long-term investment in your professional relationship and emotional health.
Bargaining: No one likes to feel helpless. It is perfectly normal to try to regain control and feel less vulnerable. In the bargaining stage, you might find yourself trying to stabilize the present state of turmoil by rationalizing the past and even the future. Your thoughts will be flooded by questions that start with “what if” and “if only”… If only you had gone to the clinic sooner, what if you get a second opinion from another doctor, what if you had changed our pet”s diet, if only your pet would recover…you might make a deal with God or your higher power in an attempt to change the dismal outcome. The bargaining stage is a weaker line of defense that makes a final, even desperate attempt at protecting us from the inevitable.
Depression: There are two types of depression associated with grief. The first one is a reaction to more practical considerations, such as the cost of treatment and burial. Discuss burial or cremation options with veterinary staff. It is morbid to consider whether you will want to visit a grave site, place a gravestone or plant flowering plants instead, or scatter your pet’s ashes at a favorite place or into the wind.
Sometimes we are not able to afford the cost of treatment, even if it is available; financial restrictions often impact pet care. It is one of the more stressful aspects of being a pet owner and veterinarian. If we are unable to provide our much loved pets with costly care and their chances of recovery from grave illness or injury are poor, it is understandable that this can deepen our sadness. We all have financial limitations; sometimes, the focus of veterinary care must be on making our pets comfortable for as long as possible with pain medication, or on ending their suffering.
This pragmatic form of depression has other associations, too. We feel guilty for spending less time with others because of our grief. Mothers may not feel up to parenting the way they usually do. As parents and friends, you may not be available to others who rely on you; you feel tired, irritable and just want to be alone. Sometimes it helps to clarify that we just aren’t feeling up to speed and reassure others that we don’t want to let anyone down. Invite a bit more helpful cooperation; a few kind words can go a long way to boosting everyone’s spirits.
The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a way, more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate from and to say goodbye to a beloved friend. Sadness and regret dominate this stage. Sometimes all you really need is a hug from someone who loves and understands you, or quality time with the one you are about to lose, or cuddling with another pet who will remain with you after the other is gone from both your lives.
Acceptance: The acceptance phase is normally characterized by withdrawal and calm. It is not a period of happiness but it is different from depression. Try to reach toward finding peace in your heart and a sense of closure. However, not everyone reaches this stage of grief easily. Some of us have difficulty progressing beyond denial. We may remain angry or depressed for extended periods of time. If you feel stuck and can’t seem to overcome your grief, seek out grief counselors, psychotherapists and other health care professionals who can assist you further.
Pets who are terminally ill or aging appear to go through a final period of withdrawal, too. We don’t know if they are aware of their own mortality. Physical decline may produce a similar response to our conscious recognition of the transience of life. Their behavior, however, suggests that limited social interaction is natural near death. The last gift that our dying pets give us may be the example of their final dignity and grace.
Grief and mourning are individual experiences. Some of us are more private and appear to recover more quickly. Some pet owners become angry when well meaning friends or family suggest looking for another pet, while others find great comfort in acquiring a new pet right away. It can be a question of timing and at what stage you are in your grief. Grieving pet owners may feel disloyal to the memory of their deceased pet.
No pet can replace the one you lost, but if and when you choose to get other companions, they will find another way into your heart that is all their own. Try not to make comparisons to the pets that preceded them. Appreciate any new pets as individuals and love them for who they are, not for who they remind you of.
Sorrow comes in great waves but it rolls over us,
and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us.
And we know that if it is strong, we are stronger,
inasmuch as it passes and we remain.
Attributed to Henry James
Walk on a rainbow trail;
walk on a trail of song, and all about you will be beauty.
There is a way out of every dark mist, over a rainbow trail.
We each have a purpose in life and lessons that we need to learn. One lesson we all must learn is how to love and how we can leave the world a better place than it would have been without us. Perhaps that is why our pets don’t live long. Nonhuman animals do not act out of malice as we do; they already know how to love purely. They enrich our lives and leave us better people for having loved them. Treasure the lives that have touched you and move forward with those who remain by your side. The gift of love is never wasted and lasts for eternity.
Peace to All Creatures, Great and Small…
Dr. Stefanie Schwartz